Control Them Or They'll Control You
You’re doing everything right – nutrition, training, supplementation. But you are experiencing negligible results, health and body composition. If you want to understand what might be the reason for your unsatisfactory achievements despite the hard work and would love to take advantage of your natural body’s cycle, this article is for you.
Your week is perfectly organized. You work out every morning, prepare your own food, eat slowly and mindfully. In one word, you give 100% effort for your nutrition. Then what might cause the mediocre results?
Every single day, your hormones are in charge of you. Well, when we see a man acting too strangely, we persume his testosterone levels are probably up to the ceiling. But when we talk about us, women, …oh, God. We’re like a tangle of emotions, thoughts, feelings, hopes, and beliefs. This of course we owe to our hormones. And therein exactly lies the problem.
For this reason, every woman should understand how her body is being influenced by her hormones and menstrual cycle. We are complex creatures and have even more sophisticated hormonal system, thence an overly simplistic view of it should be avoided.
This topic may sound a bit boring to you, but I continue to amaze myself how many women don’t know much about the processes running in their bodies, so you might want to take a look below.
We’ll take that the normal menstrual cycle of a healthy woman takes about 28 days and it can be split into two main phases (follicular and luteal) with one peak on the 14th day of the cycle (ovulation). The menstrual cycle’s monthly job is to prepare us for pregnancy.
Here, I’ll talk about women who don’t take birth control pills and aren’t yet experiencing menopause.
Before going through the first phase and its specifics, you should know some basics about the hormonal communication. The hypothalamus (a section of our brain) receives all body signals from our nervous system, immune system, hormones and based on that information it releases Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH goes to the pituitary gland that for its part releases two other hormones - Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing hormone (LH) in the 1st and in the 2nd part of the menstrual cycle respectively. The last two hormones make estrogen and progesterone, which you’re probably heard of.
Let’s get to the bottom of them now!
1st Phase - Follicular
Your cycle begins with the follicular phase immediately after you finish menstruating (bleeding) and it continues until the ovulation (the 14th day of the cycle). During this phase FSH produces estrogen with increasing pace until ovulation.
In the beginning of the menstrual cycle we have a number of follicles that start to mature and their actually making estrogen. The more they mature, the more estrogen they produce.
Workout and Results
As already mentioned, this is the maturing phase of the cycle. During the first two weeks you can progress the most, because your estrogen levels are constantly going up, and your progesterone levels are relatively low.
You’ll be very successful if you focus on progress in this phase, because you’ll be able to endure more, to tolerate higher levels of pain and to utilize better muscle glycogen for workout fuel (Hint: you’ll be able to tolerate carbs better!).
This also means you’ll be more insulin sensitive (you will require less insulin for lowering blood glucose levels). Accordingly, if you do intense workouts and reload with sufficient amount of carbs, your muscles will use the food for growth and your metabolism will speed up.
Ovulation is usually around the 14th day of the cycle, when your estrogen levels are at their PEAK! Your body temperature will start to increase along with the progressive elevation of the progesterone. Your metabolism will be accelerated, and you’ll probably feel more hungry than usual. But you shouldn’t worry about putting on weight, if you control your blood sugar levels with balanced meals containing the right sources of fat, protein and carbs.
At this point, you will be the strongest, toughest, hardest woman with ABS-olutely no limits! And you should take advantage of the situation! You’ll have almost unlimited strength and could even break your own PRs! (personal records).
Red Flag! The responsibility of performing heavier, more intense workouts comes with a higher risk of injuries.
Be extremely concentrated on your form and listen to your body if it fatigues, because the higher the estrogen, the greater its influence on your neuromuscular control and collagen metabolism.
2nd Phase - Luteal
And logically, the Luteal phase takes place from the 15th to the 28th day of your menstrual cycle. If you have already lit up your passion for working out, maybe you’ve noticed that something hasn’t been going as marvelous as in the first phase while in the gym.
Analogically to the Follicular phase, here the progesterone levels progressively upraise, whereas the estrogen is declining. You’ll find it more challenging to perform high intense workouts due to less time to exhaustion, water retention and a higher degree of thermal and cardiovascular strain.
It will be wiser if you choose fat utilizing workouts for these two weeks instead of glycogen-depleting. In other words, lower to moderate intensity activities are a smart choice. If you usually experience more severe PMS symptoms, limit your training to yoga and low intense cardio and please, make sure you supplement right to fight mood swings and cravings.
Red Flag! Control your sugar cravings, although they might feel sooo rewarding!
If your spirits are low, don’t reach out immediately to the chocolate cake. This will only refeed your bad mood, once you’re finished with it. A lot of women end up every day of this phase with extra 500-600 calories, which makes a significant difference striking the balance at the end of the week.
Always have a bottle of water with fresh lemon juice and raw nuts like almonds orcashews nearby. In general, your meals should consist of enough protein, fats, moderate to low amount of carbs and of course, don’t forget to add fiber to your meals.
Yet, carbs are a fat enemy if you do high intense glycogen-depleting workouts. If your goal is fat loss, a lower carb, lower calorie intake will do the work.
By the end of the second two weeks if no pregnancy is present, all hormones should be low. Menstruation then follows to repeat the whole cycle again.
Finally, you know you’re healthy if you have your menstruation! As it passes, you start to feel better and more energetic with less cravings, mood swings and abnormal behavior (that sometimes cannot be explained, huh). Plus, your body will drain the retained water and you will see the true fat loss results!
Hormones Make You Look Crazy
Maybe you think you’re going crazy or wonder how could you act so strange just before your menstruation. I’m almost completely sure that the one who suffers the most is your partner, but why give him a headache when you’re able to prevent this madness? Save the poor man, if you truly love him!
Well, what I didn’t tell you until now is that estrogens in our body are actually three: estrone, estradiol, and estriol, as estradiol is mostly related to our hunger and fullness levels.
Every woman knows since the first years of her menstruation cycle that her hunger levels fluctuate during its different phases. Unfortunately, we don’t throw ourselves into salad or carrots, because we crave something with sugar, butter, whipped cream, cocoa, crispy fillings, nuts, etc.
Estrogens boost the development and maintenance of female characteristics in the body. An imbalance of these hormones is an undesirable condition causing many health problems and unwanted physical changes.
If you can’t help it until you finish a whole cake, blame the low levels of estradiol. If you can’t control your cravings, again this is due to low levels of estradiol. Well, its not scientifically proven what you will exactly crave during different phases. Different women crave different type of food, including not only carbohydrates, but protein and fat.
Hunger and Fullness Hormones: Ghrelin and CCK
The hunger hormone is called ghrelin. So, you feel hungrier, if you have more of it. The longer you don’t eat, the more ghrelin your stomach produces.
Estradiol cuts down the feeling of hunger by suppressing the production of ghrelin and you consume fewer quantities of food.
The satiety hormone is CCK. Estradiol accelerates this hormone and you start to feel full while eating. Well, this is one more reason to finally start eating s-l-o-w-l-y, because your hormones don’t just have turn on/turn off buttons, it takes a while for you to feel their effects.
Being aware that your mood swings and hunger levels are due to hormonal changes and signals in your body and brain is not enough. Here, it’s not about being disciplined or having a will to counteract your hormones. Knowing how your sex hormones affect your brain and appetite hormones can help you to come up with a strategy for fighting the madness around your cravings.
- Chew your food. This means you should eat slowly, although it might be agonizing when you’re really hungry. Even so, this is how you will prevent overeating and won’t feel replete with food.
- Make an eating journal for the luteal phase. Maybe this sounds a bit obligatory, but it will help you find out patterns in your eating behavior under the hormonal influence. Observe what you want to eat and when, write down the sudden cravings and prepare yourself for the next month. Try to satisfy your hunger with healthier substitutes and you won’t have any problems with your weight or guilt.
- Improve your sleep. The lack of sleep can be more detrimental than you think. It makes you eat more and turns you into a nervous girl, who no one would love to talk to. I will devote a whole article on how the sleep affects our hormones and fat loss. So, stay tuned.
- Planning is the key to success. Plan your meals, grocery shopping, eventual cravings, your meetings. Choose better options, smaller plates, healthier restaurants, etc. Just don’t go with the tide.
- Analyze your morning body temperature. This is a good way to have at least a subtle idea what you can expect during the day. If your body temperature is raising, it means your entering the second part of the menstrual cycle.
Is It Only About Hunger?
No. Balanced hormones are urgently important for your overall health:
- They affect your cardiac health and immune system
- They improve your metabolism
- They aid brain and cognitive functions
- They strongly affect mood and self-control
- They improve bone and skin health
Testing Your Female Hormones
If you have hormonal symptoms, you better get tested. Some of the options are:
- Salivary testing – measures free (“active”) hormones.
- Urine testing – doesn’t measure the hormones themselves, but their metabolites. They’re not good at measuring the accurate hormone levels.
- Blood testing - measures free and bound (unavailable for use in the body until specific circumstances) hormones.
Females are as complex as . . . female hormones. If you have a hormonal problem, I don’t think taking hormones is the solution, because nothing is that simple.
The purpose of this article is to explain you why you might feel a bit out of control from time to time and to realize there is nothing wrong with it. You’re not an angry or mad girl, you just need to take some precautions for counteracting your hormonal toes and froes.
Once you make new habits, you won’t find it difficult to reach your goals and to become a pleasant company for the others. Two things to remember:
- Aim at greater intensity and eating more carbs in the follicular phase.
- Deload the intensity of your workouts and lower the carbohydrates in the luteal phase.
Establishing a good foundation for the upcoming change in your female hormone levels can be gruelling, but I’m always there to help!
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